Anyone who cares about America's deteriorating image in the world should be worried about what's happening to our government's leading international broadcaster, the venerable and respected Voice of America (VOA). If Congress adopts Bush administration budget proposals, VOA English-language services will be slashed in order to direct more "light" programming at the war-torn Middle East.
At first glance, this proposal might seem to be reasonable, but it is seriously flawed because English-language programs have long been a cornerstone of VOA's worldwide broadcasts. The Bush administration wants to cut $26 million from VOA English so as to increase programming to Iran and the Middle East. "Nobody can question that need," wrote ex-Voice Director John Hughes in the Christian Science Monitor, "but it shouldn't be undertaken at the expense of other programming that has proved effective. There is still a huge English-language audience for VOA, not the least among leaders and elites who speak English in countries where it isn't the predominant language."
"The funds requested to keep the radios telling America's story is a pittance when compared with the enormous spending on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," Hughes added as he joined 10 other former VOA directors in a bipartisan appeal to Congress seeking restoration of the budget cuts, which would keep 15 important languages on the air. The motto of the old U.S. Information Agency, "Telling America's story to the world," is exactly what the Voice should be doing as part of an overall international public diplomacy strategy. That was USIA's mission before it was unwisely folded into the State Department by the Clinton administration in 1999.
We're still paying the price for that mistake as world public opinion turns against us in the wake of President Bush's ill-considered decision to invade Iraq four years ago. Although a country's image is only as good Ð or bad Ð as its policies, a well-coordinated public diplomacy program is absolutely essential in times of crisis. While public diplomacy can't "sell" unpopular policies, it can place our policies and actions into an understandable international context. We can't force everyone to like us, but we can help them to understand us better.
Veteran VOA broadcaster/historian Alan Heil sounded the alarm three years ago when he wrote the following: "Seven months after 9/11, VOA's Arabic Branch disappeared at a single stroke, virtually unnoticed in the American foreign affairs community, Congress or the American media." VOA Arabic was replaced by something called Radio Sawa, "a predominantly pop music and entertainment service" aimed at youthful audiences. And in a gratuitous slap at the Voice, "Sawa management prohibited its staff from using VOA's carefully sourced central newsroom material," which didn't make any sense.
The Sawa decision was made by the quasi-independent Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which assumed responsibility for all U.S. government international broadcasting following the State/USIA merger. The Board also established a similar service for Iran called Radio Farda. Even though BBG claims that Farda is the most popular international radio station in Iran, critics say its music format has undermined its foreign policy message. I agree and question why American taxpayers should fund multi-million-dollar radio stations that carry minimal policy "freight."
It appears that BBG has traded carefully targeted audiences of foreign opinion-leaders and policymakers for mass audiences of young people who want to listen to the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake when many commercial broadcasters are serving up the same fare 24/7. As Alan Heil wrote in his prescient 2004 essay, "The disappearance of VOA Arabic at a time when it was needed most ranks among the greatest tragedies in the history of U.S. international broadcasting." And now Congress and the White House are compounding the tragedy by targeting VOA English for crippling budget cuts equal to approximately one-tenth of what Congress is spending on Alaska's fabled "Bridge to Nowhere." Can you say "pork?"
"U.S. policymakers consider broadcasting (to be) a pillar of U.S. public diplomacy, stressing its role in promoting freedom and democracy," the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations recognized in a recent research report. But in that same report a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer described America's 21st century radio voice as "muddled." "If the goal here is to make them (Middle Eastern audiences) understand the full complexity of America and America's role in the world," he commented, "I don't think they (Farda and Sawa) have the sophistication needed to do that."
Me neither, and that's why I oppose the transfer of more than $25 million from VOA English to pop music stations just as I oppose spending one more taxpayer dollar on Radio and TV Marti, which broadcast to Cuba. No one can see or hear Marti's programs because Cuba effectively jams their broadcasts. Nevertheless, the Bush administration continues to throw millions of dollars at the Miami Cubans in order to keep them in the Republican column at election time.
I hope my ex-USIA and VOA colleagues can save the Voice's flagship English-language service but given the current toxic political climate in Washington, it may go silent - and that would be another great tragedy in the history of American public diplomacy.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, supervised Voice of America Spanish-language broadcasts to Latin America during the period 1977-79.